A recent trip overseas brought me once again face to face with the European capital city Brussels, oftentimes only touched when transiting at the airport to a final destination.
Over the years, Brussels has firmly established itself as a major power city in Europe, being home not only to the EU, the European Commission, and NATO but a host of NGOs, seat of hundreds of global companies’ European headquarters, worldwide lobbying, auditing and business consultancy firms, and residence to reportedly over a million expatriates from beyond Belgium.
The weather, being mostly overcast with patches of rain, would ordinarily not have helped to make the visit enjoyable, but my hosts – Brussels Airlines and Star Alliance – did their best to add sunshine to the program by selecting interesting side shows and choosing good restaurants for lunch and supper, where it snowed food and rained drinks.
In spite of the showery weather, the city presented itself clean and organized, compared to the dust Kampala is eternally suffering from and which periodically draws even our president’s wrath. Traffic in particular stood out with discipline here the key word – how our taxi or matatu drivers and the infamous boda-bodas could do with a lesson from there, as could our traffic police.
Probably due to the European Summit also taking place at the time of my visit, security was visible everywhere, but I was assured that this was normal – apparently because there are always high-ranking visitors in town – and that walking from the hotel to restaurants, the main sights in the city center and the museums we were to visit was entirely safe and in fact the common mode of transport for most people visiting the city.
The cobblestone-paved streets in the center, including the famous Grand Place with the historic buildings surrounding the square, stood out, and where cars were permitted to drive, they showed courtesy to pedestrians, observed zebra crossings, and even waved me across a road when I was pondering where exactly the traffic was coming from, being accustomed at home to “left sided” while main Europe of course is “right sided.”
Few would know that Belgium is the world’s number one chocolate country, producing the finest pralines and chocolaty creations known to mankind, in its own a reason to visit, of course, for every chocolate addict. But there is more to come! Food and drink also rival the better-known French cuisine; the beers hold their own against the more famous German brands; and the eateries, little bistros, and bars appeared quite full all the time in the early morning, during the day, and until late at night. In a country where food and drink are so cherished, much else obviously must be good, too, and the folks encountered in the pubs and restaurants we were taken to showed generally good spirit and interest in our diverse group of journalists from around the world, who were invited to Belgium to cover the entry of Brussels Airlines into the global Star Alliance. For dining out, I particularly enjoyed the steamed chicoree wrapped in ham under a soft crust of gratinated cheese, a Belgian delicatessen all visitors should try out at least once.
There is much building going on across the city. A new railway line is being constructed to link the international airport with the major bullet train lines from Amsterdam, Paris, and Germany. New road improvements are being carried out and civic works of unknown intent were visible in the center of the city. And, of course, lo and behold, not a pothole in sight, which attracted in particular the comments from the African visitors in our group; all of us were frankly astonished about the total lack of this common feature on our own roads back home.
From past experience, I know that a visit to Brussels in spring, during summer, and into autumn often bring out the best of visitors’ experiences, when the weather is kinder and the sunshine and long daylight hours make strolls in the parks and through the streets of the city even more enticing. While Brussels Airlines does not as actively promote a stopover program like for instance Emirates does for Dubai, it is absolutely worth checking with the airline sales office or a travel agent how a quick city break can be arranged enroute to or from a final destination.
And finally, shopping, of course, which comes as good and varied for both taste and pocket contents as any other major city in Europe, and yes, English is spoken widely and well, as are, of course, Flemish (Dutch), French, and German, the three official languages of the country.
The flying visit to Brussels, lasting only a couple of days, was a welcome break before the festive season hustle and bustle set in, and comes highly recommended, as does the Royal Windsor Hotel where I stayed right in the historical center of the city and within walking distance to the Grand Place, the Manneken Pis, museums, shops, galleries, pubs, and eateries galore.